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Quickness and momentum. You take the whole last generation of sports, listening to them, even reading about them, watching the games, analyzing them, arguing about them, instant-replaying them, second-guessing them, and all you'll distill from them is quickness and momentum. Oh yes, the announcers also gave us a bit of mental toughness, the occasional 110%, the odd physical—as inevitably in very physical—but when all is said and done, and said again and again, and again, it was a time of quickness and momentum.
Even now, so few comprehend. About Howard Cosell, that is. Cosell does. "I have won," he says, as is his wont. As we know. In that jejune world up in the booth—high up in the booth—only one man possesses quickness and momentum. He is not the one with the golden locks or the golden tan but the old one, shaking, sallow and hunched, with a chin whose purpose is not to exist as a chin but only to fade, so that his face may, as the bow of a ship, break the waves and not get in the way of his voice. For as long as he speaks, whoever rails at Cosell's toupee isn't seeing the bombs for the silos.
He's 65 now, and he regularly makes idle threats that when his contract runs out next August, after the Olympics, he'll pack it in. However, no one who knows him believes he's doing anything but blowing smoke. After a couple of vodkas, Cosell is more direct. "If I quit, I die," he says. And if he needed any more support for that position, he got it several weeks ago from Leonard Goldenson, the chairman of ABC and Cosell's old friend. Goldenson summoned Cosell to his aerie and said, "I won't permit you to retire. You're ABC. You're family." Emmy Cosell, whom, 39 years later, Howard still calls "my bride...that girl who has been my life," who accompanies him most everywhere, is no longer even sure that she wants him to abandon the hunt. Consider the alternatives. Even now, with two days off a week, he becomes impossible. When he's out at their beach house in the Hamptons on Long Island, with Emmy and their daughters and grandchildren, and the phone rings and he says he's needed back to do ABC's bidding, everybody in the family professes sadness that he must leave. Secretly, though, they're delighted, because he's driving them all crazy and because they know, for himself, he must go be Howard Cosell again.
In a throwaway business, he survives; in the most imitative of businesses, he hasn't met his match, let alone been surpassed. When others say he's but a parody of himself, there's even a measure of compliment in that. One thinks then of Nureyev, who once said to a carper, "I may get tired of playing Romeo, but Romeo doesn't get tired of having me play him." Just so, Cosell never tires of having Cosell play him.
Ultimately, he has gone beyond quickness, gone even beyond momentum, and has reached that estate all his colleagues seek in the teams they cover: He has become a dynasty. Dynasties are all but gone, gone with the Kennedys, gone with the Yankees, Packers, Steelers, Celtics, Notre Dame, UCLA, Nicklaus and Ali. Only one dynasty is left in sports, and that's Cosell, up there in the booth, an emperor in earphones, draped in his grapefruit blazer as he looks upon the Lilliputian world below and describes it "like" he perceives it.
Edgar Scherick is a prominent movie producer now, but once, eons ago, he invented ABC Sports. Roone Arledge was Scherick's protégé, and while Arledge had the courage and foresight to force Cosell on ABC and thereby foist him on America, it was Scherick who paved the way. Now Scherick utters a name: "Will Rogers." Of course, he's right. In the 20th century in the U.S., the two abiding folk figures, sui generis, have been Will Rogers and Howard Cosell.
"I know," says Scherick, interrupting himself. "Will Rogers was beloved. Howard is not beloved. But that isn't the point. Beloved isn't part of the culture anymore. Nobody would even want to be beloved if he could be; it would cast aspersions on him. The point is that Will Rogers and Howard Cosell have been true originals.
"Howard is a walking conflict. He is an intelligent, sensitive and caring man. Yet he has this huge need for celebration. I employ that as the root word for celebrity. And these two things create a vortex in him that drives him. But none of that may be important anymore. What is, is that Howard means something now. He means something to this society."
It's not easy, either, being a social phenomenon, although it probably helps when you're beloved and can twirl a lariat in the bargain. People set out to be President, to be champion, but no one ever sets out to be a phenomenon, and there's no primer on hew to behave should you become one. Cosell, like everybody else, was ready to settle merely for fame and success and wealth. "I never had any idea that I—that any person in sports—could become so important in U.S. society," he says. "Who would have dreamed it?"
What's even more extraordinary is that Cosell has been a controversial phenomenon. He must deal not only with simple attention but with conflict as well. By contrast, Rogers was revered specifically for his equanimity; never met a man he didn't like—yes, yes, we know whom he never met.... Furthermore, the two television notables that Cosell most often compares himself with, Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson, have survived so long primarily because they're attractive public figures. Uncle Walter satisfied our need for Dwight Eisenhower in formaldehyde, while Carson, a master of safety even above timing, has never ventured from a world any larger than a thimble, one circumscribed by transitory jokes about Burbank, cleavage and the company cafeteria.